I’ve been teaching a section of the Introduction to Object Oriented Programming at the UMD College for Information Studies this semester. It’s difficult for me, and for the students, because we are remote due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The class is largely asynchronous, but every week I’ve been holding two synchronous live coding sessions in Zoom to discuss the material and the exercises. These have been fun because the students are sharp, and haven’t been shy about sharing their screen and their VSCode session to work on the details. But students need quite a bit of self-discipline to move through the material, and probably only about 1/4 of the students take advantage of these live sessions.

I’m quite lucky because I’m working with a set of lectures, slides and exercises that have been developed over the past couple of years by other instructors: Josh Westgard, Aric Bills and Gabriel Cruz. You can see some of the public facing materials here. Having this backdrop of content combined with Severance’s excellent (and free) Python for Everybody has allowed me to focus more on my live sessions, on responsive grading, and to also spend some time crafting additional exercises that are geared to this particular moment.

This class is in the College for Information Studies and not in the Computer Science Department, so it’s important for the students to not only learn how to use a programming language, but to understand programming as a social activity, with real political and material effects in the world. Being able to read, understand, critique and talk about code and its documentation is just as important as being able to write it. In practice, out in the “real world” of open source software I think these aspects are arguably more important.

One way I’ve been trying to do this in the first few weeks of class is to craft a sequence of exercises that form a narrative around Coronavirus testing and data collection to help remind the students of the basics of programming: variables, expressions, conditionals, loops, functions, files.

In the first exercise we imagined a very simple data entry program that needed to record results of Real-time polymerase chain reaction tests (RT-PCR). I gave them the program and described how it was supposed to work, and asked them describe (in English) any problems that they noticed and to submit a version of the program with problems fixed. I also asked them to reflect on a request from their boss about adding the collection of race, gender and income information. The goal here was to test their ability to read the program and write English about it while also demonstrating a facility for modifying the program. Most importantly I wanted them to think about how inputs such as race or gender have questions about categories and standards behind them, and weren’t simply a matter of syntax.

The second exercise builds on the first by asking them to adjust the revised program to be able to save the data in a very particular format. Yes, in the first exercise the data is stored in memory and printed to the screen in aggregate at the end. The scenario here is that the Department of Health and Human Services has assumed the responsibility for COVID test data collection from the Centers for Disease Control. Of course this really happened, but the data format I chose was completely made up (maybe we will be working with some real data at the end of the semester if I continue with this theme). The goal in this exercise was to demonstrate their ability to read another program and fit a function into it. The students were given a working program that had a save_results() function stubbed out. In addition to submitting their revised code I asked them to reflect on some limitations of the data format chosen, and the data processing pipeline that it was a part of.

And in the third exercise I asked them to imagine that this lab they were working in had a scientist who discovered a problem with some of the thresholds for acceptable testing, which required an update to the program from Exercise 2, and also a test suite to make sure the program was behaving properly. In addition to writing the tests I asked them to reflect on what functionality was not being tested that probably should be.

This alternation between writing code and writing prose is something I started doing as part of a Digital Curation class. I don’t know if this dialogical or perhaps dialectical, approach is something others have tried. I should probably do some research to see. In my last class I alternated week by week: one week reading and writing code, the next week reading and writing prose. But this semester I’ve stayed focused on code, but required the reading and writing of code as well as prose about code in the same week. I hope to write more about how this goes, and these exercises as I go. I’m not sure if I will continue with the Coronavirus data examples. One thing I’m sensitive to is that my students themselves are experiencing the effects of the Coronavirus, and may want to escape it just for a bit in their school work. Just writing in the open about it here, in addition to the weekly meetings I’ve had with Aric, Josh and Gabriel has been very useful.

Speaking of those meetings. I learned today from Aric that tomorrow (February 20th, 2021) is the 30th anniversary of Python’s first public release! You can see this reflected in this timeline. This v0.9.1 release was the first release Guido van Rossum made outside of CWI and was made on the Usenet newsgroup alt.sources where it is split out into chunks that need to be reassembled. Back in 2009 Andrew Dalke located a and repackaged these sources in Google Groups which acquired alt.sources as part of DejaNews in 2001. But if you look at the time stamp on the first part of the release you can see that it was made February 19, 1991 (not February 20). So I’m not sure if the birthday is actually today.

I sent this little note out to my students with this wonderful two part oral history that the Computer History Museum did with Guido van Rossum a couple years ago. I turns out Both of his parents were atheists and pacifists. His dad went to jail because he refused to be conscripted into the military. That and many more details of his background and thoughts about the evolution of Python can be found in these delightful interviews:

Happy Birthday Python!